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Hang Gliders Set to Return to Hammer Flat

New permit allows flying in summer months

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Local hang glider and paraglider pilots have long made the trek up Crow Hill near Lucky Peak Reservoir. Pilots rode strong winds from the Boise River basin to soar above an undeveloped 700-acre plateau known as Hammer Flat.

When the weather was right, gliders rode the winds above the parcel for the past three decades--that is, until they were grounded after the area was purchased first by the city of Boise, then the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. But a new agreement will soon see hang gliders in the sky over Hammer Flat again--at least for half the year, anyway, starting May 1.

Fans of Crow Hill have been in a holding pattern for three years as the city and IDFG officials negotiated a deed to Hammer Flat. Uncertainty about the fate of gliding at Crow Hill--located at the western edge of Hammer Flat--sparked a debate over the balance of recreation and wildlife in the Boise Foothills, since Hammer Flat is crucial range for elk, antelope, deer and other wildlife in the winter.

Pilots were abruptly barred from the area in 2010. Access gates leading to Hammer Flat were padlocked soon after Boise spent $4.1 million in Foothills Serial Levy funds to purchase the property. City officials cited the need for a baseline study of Hammer Flat, urging recreationists to be patient.

"I think when it was in the transitional phase, I think it was kind of in purgatory, so to speak," said John Kangas, spokesman for the Idaho Hang Gliding Association.

While in limbo, members of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission moved to purchase the property and return $4.23 million in Bonneville Power Administration mitigation money to the city's foothills fund. IDFG Director Virgil Moore was anxious to sign a deal before Christmas 2011, and incorporate the parcel into IDFG's Boise River Wildlife Management Area.

"The primary reason for our ownership of that area at all is to provide for winter mule deer range" said Jerry Deal, IDFG regional wildlife habitat manager.

However, recreationists voiced concern about an IDFG rule against aircraft flight on wildlife management lands, and questioned the speedy timeline to turn over the land. Fish and Game biologist Ed Bottum allegedly told pilots they'd "never have access to the land again," which chafed pilots.

"There had been some statement made by some folks, and perhaps that just really didn't keep in the big picture, we might say," said Kangas.

But pilots' wings remained clipped.

"Fish and Game didn't own the property until last fall. Even though we were managing on behalf of the city, it wasn't really appropriate for a deviation from agreed-upon management terms," said Deal.

Before unanimously voting to approve the sale of Hammer Flat in December 2011, Boise City Council members voiced their support for Crow Hill's sporting legacy. Moore, at IDFG, backpedaled on the department's matter-of-fact restriction against aircraft.

"We are willing to consider other outdoor recreational activities, including hang gliding," Moore wrote in a statement following the vote.

"Once the matter got a closer look, and the powers that be looked at our activity and our flexibility, they had a change of heart," said Kangas.

It took another year before the details of those "recreational activities" were hammered out. It wasn't until February that pilots announced plans to spread their wings above Hammer Flat once more, following a series of talks between IDFG land managers and pilots Marshall Sinclair and Patrick Harper.

"We worked out some terms for a special use permit, and it just took a bit of time to develop the fine details in that. We found a solution that's consistent with the management goals of the area," said Deal.

The news had Kangas brimming with excitement.

"We're just tickled pink that beautiful gliders will grace the Boise skyline again," Kangas told Boise Weekly.

"[Starting Wednesday,] May 1, when the wintering deer are not relying on that for winter range, until Nov. 15, when we think we're likely to see a number of them showing up, said Deal. "Outside of that impact zone, results show we can live with that."

IDFG officials determined pilots using Crow Hill in the warmer months would not significantly impact wildlife. According to Kangas, the warmer weather suits pilots just fine.

"It probably matches our best flying season," said Kangas. "Historically, we've flown year-round, but we understand it's a wildlife management area, and one of the things we've always laid claim to is our flexibility."

According to Deal, IDFG does its best to accommodate recreation, hunting and other uses, but ultimately, its mission focuses on wildlife management.

"Typically, we try to accommodate, to the degree possible, all of them," he said. "We don't own recreation lands, that's the business of Parks and Rec and the city and counties. Our recreation is wildlife-based, as we say."

Deal said Harper and Sinclair took him to the top of Crow Hill to further make their point.

"One thing I took out of that was this is not just another place you can hang glide, or paraglide. It is special, they convinced me of that," said Deal.

After evaluating the site's impact on Hammer Flat as a whole, he said IDFG found a plan it "could live with."

"The activity is contingent on nice weather conditions," said Kangas. "If the wind is out of the west, not too strong, 15 mph on May 1, I wouldn't be surprised if you'd see a few gliders up above the Crow Hill again."

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